Chili con carne

From Academic Kids

Missing image
A pot of Chili with beans

Chili con carne (or Chili for short) is a spicy stew-like dish, the essential ingredients of which are beef, pork, venison, or other mature meat, and chile peppers. Variations, either geographic or by personal preference, may use a meat substitute and may add tomatoes, onions, beans, and other ingredients. There are also many versions of vegetarian chili, made without meat. The name "chili con carne" is a slight corruption of the Spanish chile con carne, which means "chili with meat". Chili con carne is the official dish of the U.S. state of Texas.


Origins and history

Chili con carne had its origins in Texas. One theory holds that it emerged in the late 1840s, as the local equivalent of pemmican. This consisted of dried beef, suet, dried chiles (usually chilipiquenes), and salt, which were pounded together and left to dry into bricks, which could then be boiled in pots on the trail. An alternative and more widely-accepted theory holds that chili con carne was born in San Antonio in the 1880s as a way of stretching available meat in the kitchens of poor Tejanos. Despite popular perception, it is not native to Mexico.

"Chili, as we know it in the United States, cannot be found in Mexico today except in a few spots which cater to tourists. If chili had come from Mexico, it would still be there. For Mexicans, especially those of Indian ancestry, do not change their culinary customs from one generation – or even from one century – to another." [Ramsdell, San Antonio]

A "San Antonio Chili Stand" was in operation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and this helped spread a taste for chili to other parts of the country. Furthermore, San Antonio was a significant tourist destination, and Texas-style chili con carne spread throughout the South and West.

Chili queens

During the 1880s, brightly-dressed Hispanic women known as "Chili Queens" began to operate around Military Plaza and other public gathering places in downtown San Antonio. They would appear at dusk, building charcoal or wood fires to reheat cauldrons of pre-cooked chili, selling it by the bowl to passers-by. The aroma was a potent sales pitch, aided by Mariachi street musicians, who joined in to serenade the eaters. Some Chili Queens later built semi-permanent stalls in the mercado, or local Mexican marketplace.

In September 1937, the San Antonio health department implemented new sanitary regulations which required the Chili Queens to adhere to the same standards as indoor restaurants. The "street chili" culture disappeared overnight. Although [San Antonio Light, 12 September ] Mayor Maury Maverick reinstated their privileges in 1939, the more stringent regulations were reapplied permanently in 1943.

San Antonio's mercado was renovated in the 1970s, at which time it was the largest Mexican marketplace in the U.S. Local merchants began staging historic re-enactments of the Chili Queens' heyday, and the "Return of the Chili Queens Festival" is now part of that city's annual Memorial Day festivities.

Chili parlors

Before World War II, hundreds of small, family-run chili parlors (also known as "chili joints") could be found throughout Texas and other states, particularly those in which emigr Texans had made their new homes. Each establishment usually had a claim to some kind of "secret recipe".

One of the best known chili parlors, in part because of its location and socially-connected clientele, was Bob Pool's "joint" in downtown Dallas, just across the street from the headquarters of popular department store Neiman Marcus. Stanley Marcus, president of the store, frequently ate there, and sent containers of Pool's chili to friends and customers across the country by air express. Several members of General Dwight Eisenhower's SHAPE staff during the early 1950s were reported to have arranged regular shipments from Pool's to Paris.

Texas chili recipes

Original Texas-style chili

This contains no vegetables at all, except chilies which have been prepared by being boiled, peeled, and chopped. The meat is simply bite-size – traditionally, the size of a pecan nut – or coarsely ground, with 1/2-inch plate holes in a meat grinder as standard. It must always be beef, venison, or other mature meats. Stewing meat also works well. Prime beef and veal, on the other hand, are not suitable for chili, as they tend not to remain solid. Many cooks omit the suet as being much too greasy, although it does add flavor, and Ancho or Anaheim peppers are recommended. For an "elevated" flavor, one uses four pepper pods per pound of meat; for a milder "beginners'" version, use only 2-3 pods. Chili powder is a barely adequate substitute in the original recipe; it lacks the subtle sting of the pods. (A heaping teaspoon of chili powder is the approximate equivalent of one average-size chile pod.)

Jailhouse chili

In the early part of the 20th century, those likely to regularly spend time in local detention facilities in the American Southwest were said to rate the accommodations among themselves by the quality of the chili they were served. This became a matter of local pride and competition with other communities.

This modern version, as served in the Texas prison system, more or less follows the cooking procedure of the Original Texas-Style recipe.

Pedernales River chili

President Lyndon Johnson's favorite chili recipe became known as "Pedernales River chili" after the location of his Texas Hill Country ranch. It calls for leaving out the traditional beef suet (on doctor's orders after his heart attack while he was U.S. Senate Majority Leader) and also adds tomatoes and onions. LBJ preferred venison, when available, over beef; Hill Country deer were thought to be leaner than most. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson had it printed up on cards as a mail-out because of the many thousands of requests the White House received for the recipe.

New Mexico chile verde

The Official State Vegetable of New Mexico is the chile pepper and the Official State Question is "Red or green?" This refers to the decision New Mexican chile devotees must regularly make, and which engenders frequent discussion and argument. The red chile is simply a riper form of the green chile, but the former is cooked in its dried form and the latter is used fresh from the field, with significant differences in results. For those who simply cannot decide, the standard reply is "Christmas": a portion of each.

Chile verde ("green chile") is generally considered more typical of New Mexican cuisine, possibly because of its more marked visual contrast to Texas-style chili. While there apparently is no canonical recipe for chile verde, all versions involve roasting fresh green chiles and cooking them slowly with meat (usually pork but also beef, chicken, or turkey), garlic, oregano, and cumin. The consistency is usually much thinner than Texas-style chili and is sometimes listed on restaurant menus as "green chile stew". In additon to being eaten by the bowl (sometimes with pinto beans or diced potatoes added), Chile Verde often is treated as a condiment and is ladled over burritos, enchiladas, hamburgers, and fried eggs.

Cincinnati-style chili

Cincinnati-style chili is a very popular regional variation that is quite different from Texas-style chili. Most notably, it is usually eaten as a topping for spaghetti or hot dogs, rather than as a stew by itself. It was invented by Greek immigrants, who began serving it in the 1920s. It is much thinner than Texas-style chili, and usually not as spicy.

Vegetarian chili (also known as chili sin carne, "without meat")

Vegetarian chili acquired wide popularity in the U.S. during the 1960s and 1970s with the rise of the vegetarian philosophy, and is also popular with those on a diet restricted in red meat.

The following is a simple, representative recipe:

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
2 cups diced tomatoes
2 cans (15-oz.) red kidney beans, drained
1 cup whole green lentils, cooked
1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of sugar

Heat oil in a large saucepan and saut onion and bell pepper for about 10 minutes. Add tomatoes. Drain beans and lentils, reserving the liquid. Add both to tomato mixture. Add paprika and chili powder.

Simmer for 15 minutes, adding reserved liquid as necessary for preferred consistency. Season with salt, pepper, and sugar. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve with French bread.

Many variant recipes exist, and almost any available vegetable may be added, including corn, squash, mushrooms, potatoes, and even beets. (Corn, squash, and beans are known as the "Three Sisters" of Native American agriculture in the American Southwest.) A meat substitute, such as textured vegetable protein, may also be included.

Accompaniments and additions

Several beverages are commonly used to accompany a bowl of chili, including ice-cold beer, or a glass of cold milk to moderate the impact of the chiles on the throat. Saltine crackers, broken up and scattered on top, are common in chili parlors. Jalapeo cornbread, rolled-up corn tortillas, and pork tamales also are popular, for dunking.

Beans or no beans?

Pinto beans (frijoles), a staple of Tex-Mex cooking, have long been associated with chili and the question of whether beans "belong" in chili has been a matter of contention amongst chili cooks for an equally long time. It is likely that in many poorer areas of San Antonio and other places associated with the origins of chili, beans were used rather than meat or in addition to meat due to poverty. In that regard, it has been suggested by some chili aficionados that there were probably two chili types made in the world, depending on what could be afforded and how frugal the cook was.

Many chili experts believe, however, that beans and chili should always be cooked separately and served on the side. It is then up to the consumer to stir his preferred quantity of beans into his own bowl. Some cooks prefer black beans or black-eyed peas instead of pinto beans.


Another ingredient considered anywhere from optional to sacrilegious is tomatoes. Wick Fowler, north Texas newspaperman and inventor of "Four-Alarm Chili" (which he later marketed as a "kit" of spices), insisted on adding tomato sauce to his chili, one 15-oz. can per three pounds of meat. He also believed that chili should never be eaten newly-cooked but refrigerated overnight to seal in the flavor. Matt Weinstock, a Los Angeles newspaper columnist, once remarked that Fowler's chili "was reputed to open eighteen sinus cavities unknown to the medical profession". [Tolbert, A Bowl of Red]

Store-bought chili

Willie Gebhardt, originally of New Braunfels, Texas and later of San Antonio, produced the first canned chili in 1908. Gebhardt also invented the first commercial chili powder in 1896, but very little else is known about him; he apparently sold out to a brother-in-law and disappeared from the scene. His chili powder nonetheless remains popular today.

Another popular chili brand is Wolf Brand ( chili, which was founded by rancher Lyman Davis near Corsicana, Texas, in 1885. He also owned a meat market and was a particular fan of Texas-style chili. In the 1880s, in partnership with an experienced range cook, he began producing heavily-spiced chili based on chunks of lean beef and including rendered beef suet, which he sold by the pot to local cafs. In 1921, Davis began canning his product in the back of his meat market and named it for his pet wolf, "Kaiser Bill". Shortly after this, Davis sold the company, spurred by the discovery of large amounts of oil on his land. Wolf Brand canned chili was a favorite of Will Rogers, who always took along a case of it when traveling and entertaining in chili-less regions of the world.

Both the Gebhardt and Wolf brands are now owned by ConAgra Foods, Inc. In the UK, the most popular brand of canned chili is sold by Stagg, a division of Hormel foods.

Another method of marketing commercial chili in the days before widespread home refrigerators was "brick chili", in the production of which nearly all of the moisture was squeezed out to leave a solid substance roughly the size and shape of a half-brick. Commonly available in small towns and rural areas of the American Southwest in the first three-quarters of the 20th century, brick chili has largely outlived its usefulness and is now difficult to find.


  • "Wish I had time for just one more bowl of chili."
  • "My feeling about chili is this: Along in November, when the first norther strikes, and the skies are gray, along about five o'clock in the afternoon, I get to thinking how good chili would taste for supper. It always lives up to expectations. In fact, you don't even mind the cold November winds."
  • "Next to jazz music, there is nothing that lifts the spirit and strengthens the soul more than a good bowl of chili. Congress should pass a law making it mandatory for all restaurants serving chili to follow a Texas recipe."
  • (On the other hand...) "Put a pot of chili on the back of the stove to simmer. Let it keep simmering. Meanwhile, broil a good sirloin steak. Eat the steak. Let the chili continue to simmer. Then ignore it."


  • Frank X. Tolbert. A Bowl of Red: A Natural History of Chili con Carne. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966. [Much of the material in this book originally appeared in the author's newspaper columns in the Dallas Morning News beginning in the early 1950s.]
  • Charles Ramsdell. San Antonio: An Historical and Pictorial Guide. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1959.
  • Joe E. Cooper. With or Without Beans. Dallas: W. S. Henson, 1967.
  • H. Allen Smith. "Nobody Knows More About Chili Than I Do." Reprinted at the International Chili Society ( web site.
  • Jack Arnold. The Chili Lover's Handbook. Privately published, 1977.
  • Robb Walsh. The Tex-Mex Cookbook: A History in Recipes and Photos. New York: Broadway Books, 2004. [A very knowledgeable and very well-written "food history", including a long chapter on "real" chili, chili joints, and the San Antonio chili queens.]


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